A refugee overload
‘You wouldn’t believe how the system is abused’
Wearing a black leather Harley-Davidson motorcycle cap and a jean jacket, Manuel Gariway sat in a central Toronto immigration office and recalled his reasons for moving to Canada. For years, the 28year-old schoolteacher from Liberia wanted to escape the violence of his African homeland— and seek a better standard of living. When friends who had made successful refugee claims in Canada in the late 1980s encouraged Gariway to follow them, he did. In January, as sporadic fighting continued in Liberia’s civil war, Gariway flew from the capital, Monrovia, to New York City. Then, he flew to Toronto, where he approached officials to claim status as a refugee. Said Gariway:
“Many Liberians go to Switzerland, Germany and the United States to make refugee claims. But they told me that Canada is the best. It is very open for refugee claimants.” For years, such impressions have made the country a magnet not only for bona fide refugees, but for thousands of false refugee claimants as well. Indeed, when Ottawa announced a sweeping overhaul of the refugee system in 1988, Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall said that it would deter illegal refugees. But a wide-ranging Maclean ’s investigation indicates that the reforms have largely failed.
In an interview with Maclean’s, McDougall said that the new system has been subject to “pressures that were not foreseeable.” The minister said that her department is conducting a review of the reforms, which could result in further changes. “We have tried to deal with some of the problems,” McDougall said. “But in humanitarian terms, the system is certainly working well.” Still, dozens of department officials, immigration lawyers and police sources interviewed by Maclean ’s said that refuge seekers with dubious evidence to support their claims that they are fleeing persecution are continuing to flood into Canada. Those sources say that the barriers to fraudulent claims under the new system are so porous that some claimants have established profitable alien-smuggling networks. According to critics, the system has also failed to weed out some with criminal records. Said one appointee to the 279-member Immigration and Refugee Board, the government agency that judges refugee claims: “You wouldn’t believe how the system is abused. If the public knew what’s going on, there would be riots in the streets.” In fact, the changes that took effect on Jan. 1, 1989, resulted in part from public anger over
highly publicized cases of illegal refugees entering Canada from countries such as Portugal and Trinidad—both democracies with good records on human rights. The Conservative government’s Bill C-55 created a new, independent body—the Immigration and Refugee Board—to judge refugee claims in two stages using panels consisting of a board member and an immigration department adjudicator. Under the old system, an advisory committee to the minister decided cases in a seven-step process that delayed cases for years. But officials said that the new system would deter fraudulent asylum seekers because phoney claimants
would be quickly identified and deported. McDougall followed up that initiative by announcing a special $ 100-million program to clear a backlog of 85,000 claims that had accumulated under the old rules between 1986 and 1988.
But statistics obtained from the minister’s department reveal a record of unattained goals. McDougall originally said that the backlog clearance program would take two years to complete, with the department deporting any false claimants. At the time, her own officials estimated that phoney claims amounted to 70 per cent of the total. More than two years later, officials have settled only 18,000 backlog cases—deporting just 250 claimants while allowing 17,400 to stay in the country and issuing removal orders against the remaining 350. Another 29,000 claimants have at least
begun the screening process, and program supervisors say that as many as 8,600 others may have left the country voluntarily. Meanwhile, the program’s cost has ballooned to $179 million. Said Toronto immigration lawyer Richard Boraks: “Barbara said, T’m playing hardball.’ What’s happened since then? Mass concessions everywhere, and millions of tax dollars are going down the toilet.”
Supervisors of the backlog program also say privately that the immigration department has publicly underestimated the true size of the backlog—and that it actually contains about 130,000 claimants. If true, that would mean that as many as 75,000 claimants who arrived before 1989 have not even had their cases opened. At the same time, other officials say that they are disturbed by the high acceptance rate for the processed claims.
They note that each approval of a backlog refugee eliminates an opportunity for would-be immigrants who are trying to enter the country through official channels. As well, the approv-
als fill places that could be taken by refugees who are approved on the spot hy Canadian officials in strife-tom regions abroad. The 1991 quota is 250,000 immigrants, including refugees. One senior immigration officer said that almost all of the backlogged claimants “are queue jumpers.” He added: “There are real refugees stuck in camps out there, and these people are taking their places.” Administrative problems and court challenges have contributed to the delays in clearing up the backlog. But now, officials say that they expect to eliminate it, except in the Toronto region, by September. But more than half of all the cases are in the Toronto area— and screening there is well behind schedule. Many critics say that McDougall now has only one option: to proclaim an amnesty that would offer all the backlogged refugees status as
landed immigrants. Said Toronto immigration lawyer Mendel Green: “That would be a sensible way to deal with the overwhelming majority of these people.” But department spokesman Milton Best ruled that out. Declared Best: “The minister has said many times that if we declare an amnesty, people will just go underground because of the expectation of one.” Meanwhile, many critics say that the revised system has also been a failure. For one thing, officials promised that the new system would clear refugee claims in 12 weeks. Instead, it now routinely takes a year to conclude a case. In fact, the new system has created what officials are calling a “frontlog” of 25,000 cases. Said one 20-year veteran of the department, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job: “The last system we had was bad enough, but this one is a joke.”
In part, the delays experienced under the new system are a result of a huge increase in the number of cases. In 1987, Canada received 25,800 refugee claims. Last year, the figure had reached 36,500, partly because of an increase in the number of people fleeing conflicts in their home countries, including Sri Lanka and Somalia. But another reason for the increase, according to immigration lawyers and officials, is that the new system has failed to send a message of deterrence. Instead, they say, it has given Canada a reputation as one of
the easiest countries for claimants to enter. Said one officer in Immigration’s intelligence branch: “The system has become so open that if you get a refugee who gets in, the word goes out and his whole village floods in behind him.”
There is evidence to support that perception. In 1988, Canada accepted an estimated 30 per cent of refugee claimants. Under the new system, the acceptance rate has more than doubled to 70 per cent—by far the highest in any Western country. According to UN statistics, Belgium’s acceptance rate in recent years has been the next highest, at about 45 per cent. The United States accepts fewer than 20 per cent of asylum seekers, and Switzerland, only six per cent.
For their part, immigration department officials note that the new system was not intended to reduce the number of refugee claims, but only to discourage frivolous ones. The distinction, according to Canada’s Immigration Act, hinges on the terms of a 1951 UN convention on refugees. In order to qualify as a legitimate refugee under that convention, an individual must be able to show a well-founded fear of persecution in his homeland because of race, religion, nationality, politics or membership in a particular social group.
Against that, department spokesman Best said that the new system is working. For one thing, he noted that refugee claims from such
countries as Trinidad and Portugal have almost disappeared. He added that the number of claimants has increased from countries recognized by officials as “refugee producing.” In fact, an internal department report obtained by Maclean ’s indicates that the top five countries of origin for those seeking asylum in Canada last year were, in order, Sri Lanka, Somalia, China, Bulgaria and Lebanon.
Still, many officials say that the vast majority even from those countries are not genuine refugees according to the UN definition. Instead, they say, most claimants are simply looking for better economic conditions—and are using forged documents and fabricated accounts of persecution. Declared lawyer Boraks: “As a legal entity, Bill C-55 is one of the best systems in the world. The bad news is that we’re getting economic refugees and they are lying to the refugee board. The board knows it’s letting in con artists, but they can’t prove that they aren’t real refugees.” Said one board member: “We get people who all repeat the same story about how they were involved in a coup. It’s a total fabrication—but we can’t prove it. They have friends who have gone through the system and coached them.”
Indeed, evidence is accumulating that some refugee claimants are profiting from the system. Maclean’s has learned that at least 50 claimants from Sri Lanka are under investiga-
tion by the RCMP in connection with smuggling aliens into Canada. Police say that some of them are recruiting refugee claimants in Sri Lanka and charging up to $2,000 in what they call “consulting fees.”
For that money, prospective immigrants receive detailed instructions on the best way to reach Canada—and what to say to Canadian authorities upon arrival. A confidential 1989 immigration department bulletin obtained by Maclean ’s quotes a passage from a letter found in the luggage of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker. The letter advised him to “tell lies” and claim to be a victim of persecution because “the army arrested you 2-3 times and harassed you.” The letter continued: “When the officer asks you this, tell them as if you are telling them a real sad story which has happened.”
The department bulletin concludes on a note of frustration. The letter, it notes,
“clearly demonstrates to what extent our generous refugee provisions are being abused and exploited by Sri Lankans and others.” Indeed, some immigration officials say that departmental policy has actually made it easier for fraudulent claims to be accepted. According to several case officers in Toronto, department managers have instructed them not to challenge claims from about 25 countries, including Sri Lanka, at the initial inquiry stage. As a
result, they say, those claimants receive approval on the basis of little more than what they have stated on an application form—even when they arrive with fake, or no, identification. Noted James Ouimet, a 17-year veteran of the immigration department who is now an immigration consultant: “If they challenge the cases, it becomes too drawnout. Basically, they’re throwing in the towel.”
In the case of Sri Lankans, a confidential department report obtained by Maclean’s shows that during the first nine months of 1990, immigration officers let 99 per cent of the 2,849 cases they handled pass the first stage of inquiry unchallenged. At the second and final stage, fully 89 per cent of the applicants were accepted as refugees & and went on to become land| ed immigrants. But other evi-
lt; dence shows that few would Q fit the definition of a refugee I in the event of a thorough
t; investigation. In 1989, the u Canadian High Commission
in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, conducted an investigation of 35 claims and found only six of the applicants provided totally accurate information. Said one case-presenting officer in Toronto: “We no longer protect refugees. We just let in any liar who comes along.”
For her part, McDougall said that she is “surprised” by the high acceptance under the new system. “I have questions about that,” she
said, “and it will be taken into account in our review.” The minister added that her department has stalled the growth of the so-called frontlog and is now processing as many claims as it receives in new ones each week. Meanwhile, some independent refugee experts praise the system’s generosity. Declared Eduardo Arboleda, legal protection officer in the Ottawa office of the UN High Commission for Refugees: “The question for us is, Are genuine refugees being sent back to their country of origin and their death? The answer is no. We’re happy with the system.”
But the apparent lack of thorough screening in some cases has raised concerns among a number of officials that Canada may be allowing criminals, as well as false refugees, to enter the country unchallenged. In one incident, police in Toronto arrested seven Asian refugee claimants in early February and charged them with involvement in an international heroinsmuggling network.
Immigration officials say privately that frustration has put further strains on the system. Last month, in fact, almost all of the department’s 300 case and appeals officers began a campaign for higher job classifications and more pay. In spite of their supervisors’ directives, they have begun to challenge every refugee claim. Declared Michael Prue, an appeals officer and a Toronto vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union: “We will grind this already tottering system to a halt.” Clearly, the huge volume of bottlenecked claims and the increasing number of new asylum seekers will continue to test Canada’s refugee system.
STRANDED IN THE SYSTEM
Mary Revilla has been waiting for 1½ years. The Panamanian marketing graduate arrived in Toronto three months before the December, 1989, U.S. invasion of her homeland—and claimed refugee status. Although the Conservative government pledged that a new refugee selection system that went into effect that year would process claims within 12 weeks, Revilla has still not received her initial inquiry. Caught in a bottleneck of 25,000 new, unresolved cases since 1988, she has not even been assigned a date to appear before a refugee claims determination panel. Under the new rules, refugee claimants are not granted work permits until they pass that initial inquiry. As a result, for the past 17 months Revilla, 24, has been collecting a monthly $500 welfare cheque, paying $400 a month to live in a YWCA residence and working as a volunteer translator at a Toronto refugee counselling centre. “I don't want to take advantage of this aid,” said Revilla. “I want
to give something back to Canada.”
But not all refugees are as civic-minded. Immigration officials say that many of the 19,000 claimants still without work permits are in fact working illegally—and collecting welfare at the same time. In some instances, abuses of the system have led to criminal charges. In one notorious case, Lantis Osifo of Nigeria first claimed refugee status in Canada under a phoney name in 1988, then disappeared after police issued a warrant for his arrest on fraud charges.
Last May, Osifo, 27, returned, and made another refugee claim under a new alias—Larry Aguebor. He told immigration officials that the Nigerian army had arrested and tortured him because he was a member of an opposition party—and made no mention of his previous visit to Canada.
But while he was waiting for his hearing, Osifo forged his refugee application papers under various aliases. Then, according to court
records, he used the aliases to make six concurrent welfare claims and collect about $10,000 from various Toronto-area welfare offices last summer and fall. Police arrested Osifo in November. Last month, he pleaded guilty to three reduced counts of fraud over $1,000. He is now serving a nine-month jail sentence.
For her part, Revilla said that such abuses reflect badly on all refugee claimants— which adds to the despair and ^ frustration experienced by g many asylum seekers strand! ed by the long delays in the $ system. Said Revilla: “The ö waiting drains you. You don’t " know what’s going to happen Revilla: ‘If I had to sit to you. If I had to sit at home at home, I'd kill myself * and think about it all day, I’d
kill myself.” Revilla added that two clients at her centre have committed suicide. And as Revilla continues her grim wait for acceptance, the lineup of refugees behind her grows longer.